“In its fifth year, Russia's armed aggression in Ukraine's Donbas region has become a costly burden with little strategic benefit,” says Charles North. One possible exit ramp has emerged from recent negotiations: a U.N.-mandated peacekeeping operation to facilitate a peace process resulting in Russia’s departure from Donbas and the return of control to Ukraine.

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley: It's been a while since we addressed this issue. It's a good time to get an update on Ukraine and Russia. Recently, our guest has written about Russia's roadmap to exiting Ukraine. When Russia realizes its approach in Ukraine has failed, here's how it can get out. Let's let him flesh it out for us. Charles North is Senior Advisor on Ukraine at the United States Institute of Peace, a former director in Russia, of the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, and the Twitter handle is @USIP. Charles North, welcome. Thank you for being here. 

Charles North: Thanks very much, Tim. It's a pleasure to be with you.

Tim Farley: Let's talk about Russia and how far, really, are they into Ukraine, right now?

Charles North: There are two places where Russia has seized territory in Ukraine. First, is the whole Crimea Peninsula. That, they've basically annexed. The other part is in eastern Ukraine, an area called the Donbas. They are holding a territory roughly the equivalent to the size of New Jersey. They have installed their own puppet authorities in two parts of that territory. 

Tim Farley: And the idea behind their incursion into Ukraine? Economic? Nationalistic? Imperialistic? How would you characterize the movement into Ukraine? Just to get more territory or do they need more territory?

Charles North: I think it's less a function of territory than an effort to destabilize the Ukrainian government. These invasions took place around the time that Ukraine was moving seriously towards looking for a closer relationship with the EU. This was something that Russia couldn't bear, so this was a way of changing that dynamic by destabilizing the country, putting it on a war footing, and moving the question from joining the EU to having to fight this war on the side with Russia. Also, an attempt to galvanize, perhaps, pro-Russian Ukrainians into saying, “Yes, we want to move back to Russia.” 

This is what they've tried to do there. It actually has historical context of using borderlands around Russia as a buffer zone against foreign incursions or just keeping enemies at bay. The interest in keeping NATO just a bit farther away. So if Ukraine went the side of EU, the potential for also joining NATO would be there, as well. 

Tim Farley: Is it still the case that Ukraine is dependent on the West for energy, and to the East on Russia for other support, or has that changed over the last couple years?

Charles North: Well, Ukraine is still very dependent on the outside for all their resources. You still have energy flowing to the pipelines through Ukraine. This is one reason why they're concerned about alternate pipelines, so they are still very dependent on other outside donors. But we have seen some improvement, here and there, in the economic performance.

Tim Farley: I wonder ... Again, Charles North, with the Senior Advisor on Ukraine at the United States Institute of Peace. Your op-ed that appeared in The Moscow Times noted that we cannot know when, or if, Russia will reconsider its failed approach. It would be a failure of smart policy making not to have an exit ramp designed and paved for ready use. In other words, you're saying, let's come up with an idea, so that the Russians, if they finally come to the realization that what they're doing is not working, we can say, “Hey, try this, it will work fine.” Any indication that Russia is going to listen? Any indication that they are even contemplating taking steps? What's your sense of things?

Charles North: Well, I think there's some incentives for the Russians to get out. One, the calculation that their incursion into eastern Ukraine was going to destabilize Ukraine, it just has not paid out. The Ukrainians are actually more united now than they were before the war. They're actually more united against Russia and more towards Europe. So that hasn't worked out for them. The Russians have also incurred the sanctions from the West. This is biting. It's effecting the Russian government's ability to pay salaries, and to keep their projects going, the non-military programs. Then we've also seen them increasing the retirement age, which has led to significant protests and a significant drop in President Putin's popularity. 

But beyond that, we've also even seen analysis by Russian think tanks on the possibility of a peacekeeping force, as much as, like I had described in my op-ed that would help with the transition from Russian to Ukrainian control of the territory in eastern Ukraine. We have seen some of these glimmers. It's hard to say that this is a ... it's going to happen for sure. Even a year ago, President Putin was saying he was not opposed to the idea of having peacekeepers, but whether that is something he's committed to, or if he was just trying to keep the conversation going a bit longer before having to make a commitment. 

There's uncertainty about whether they would actually go forward, but it's something we need to be prepared for. 

Tim Farley: You mentioned President Putin, and I wondered, does this change or effect, in any way, the dynamic of a scheduled or, at least, contemplated early 2019 visit of Vladimir Putin to the White House? Would this be on the table? Would this be something that may be in the works before then? Give us a sense of how that might play out, and the role the U.S. might play in this.

Charles North: I don't see any agreement happening on ... At least, no public agreement, on a peacekeeping force before the Ukrainian elections in March 2019. Would it be on the table for a conversation if President Putin came to Washington? I would expect so. It would, certainly, be on the table for conversation, but whether they would get very far with it, I don't know. It all depends on whether that happens.

Tim Farley: Is that the level it should take place at?

Charles North: Sorry, again?

Tim Farley: Is that a good level to have those conversations or should that be left to subordinates?

Charles North: Well, I think the only person that makes any sound decisions in Russia is President Putin, so it's important to have it at that level. I think there's a lot to be done to prepare for that, but it definitely needs to be had at that level.

Tim Farley: People can read the op-ed in The Moscow Times, "Russia's Roadmap to Exiting Ukraine." Charles North joining us on POTUS. Charles, thank you so much.

Charles North: Thank you very much, Tim.

Tim Farley: Charles North, Senior Advisor on Ukraine to the United States, at the United States Institute of Peace. He's a former director in Russia for USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development. Joining us here to talk a little bit about what I just said, that op-ed about the exit from Ukraine for Russia. Twitter handle is @USIP.

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